Here in upstate SC we don’t have Grizzly bears, but we do have a growing number of black bears, which are smaller and probably less aggressive.

Besides guns, what do you recommend as an effective and affordable bear protection/deterrent? Pepper spray?

Many people have told me pepper spray would just piss off most bears. What do you think?

How about “bear poppers” or noise making devices?

It seems the older I get, the more mortal I feel and I’ve started worrying about running up on a bear some day. I can’t believe I haven’t already, especially around the Horsepasture River in the Jocassee Gorges Park, where there are dens on the ridges and I’ve seen fresh tracks too.

When I was younger I just never thought about hiking into the smokey mountains with no bear protection at all. I guess I foolishly thought I could outrun any danger. I now know that is a bad idea when it comes to any predator.

It is my dream to one day “go west young man” and move to Alaska. Was shopping for property in Haines just yesterday. lol

Bears would be my biggest fear as an Alaska hiker, at least initially until I learned how to prioritize the many other dangers (like freezing to death).

By the way, the book “Into the Wild” touches a deep cord in my soul. I can really relate to the late Christopher McCandless and his minimalist philosophy and the Wanderlust he felt.

If you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend it. A good Alaska related book recommendation for your site visitors too.

Anyway, great site. I found you while reading an old comment you left on Tomaz’s freedomideas site. I too am an SBIer. Quit my day job to do it all full time. Love the prospect of mobility and freedom it affords.

One of my sites in development is:

Stop by some time.

Thanks for any advice you may have on effective and affordable bear protection.


Nathanael’s Answer

Thanks for the great question, Marc! I can relate to your concern. Hiking in Alaska’s backcountry, the possibility of a bear encounter is never far from my mind. Especially when I hear about bear attacks like this one or this one–on a popular trail nearby which I have hiked many times!

I’ve never had a close call myself. I have seen bears (usually black) on a few occasions, always from a good distance away. But I always carry pepper spray just in case.

My gun-loving friends like to make fun of me. Maybe you’ve heard the joke, “How do you identify grizzly bear scat? It smells like pepper and has little bells in it.” I hear that one all the time. But I read a report awhile back that said pepper spray has actually been shown to be more effective than guns in bear encounters.

I took a bear safety class a few years ago where they showed a video of a man spraying a black bear who was approaching him. That bear turned right around and got the heck out of there!

Just be sure to read the instructions so you know how to use it. Bear repellent isn’t like bug repellent–you don’t spray it on your clothes or tent to keep bears away! The active ingredient is capsaicin, the same chemical which makes hot peppers hot. So if you get it on your skin, it will burn something fierce.

I know–a friend of mine had his bear spray go off in his jacket pocket on one of our backpacking trips (the one I affectionately call “the trip from hell”). He got it on his hands and face and was in serious pain for several hours.

It is meant to be sprayed at the face of an oncoming bear when it is within 25 feet of you.

I had another friend who worked as a field biologist in Denali National Park. He was charged by a grizzly and had to spray it. He said that waiting for the bear to get within 25 feet was so scary he almost messed his pants! But it worked–the bear ran away.

Remember, though, that pepper spray is a last resort. The best way for hikers to protect themselves from bears is to prevent an encounter by practicing “bear aware” behavior in the backcountry.

First, make plenty of noise when traveling in areas of thick vegetation where you could surprise a bear. I’m not impressed with bear bells–they’re just loud enough to annoy you but not loud enough to alert a bear to your presence, in my opinion. I don’t have any experience with “poppers”. I just yell “Hey Bear!” whenever I’m in a place where visibility is limited.

Second, avoid traveling at dawn or dusk, when bears are most active.

Third, keep a clean camp. This is probably the most important thing to remember. Bears have an incredible sense of smell. Be careful not to spill food on your clothes. Store all food and scented items (deodorant, toothpaste, etc.) in a sealed container at least 200 feet downwind from your tent.

If you follow these precautions, you should be just fine.

If ever make it up to Fairbanks, drop me a line and I’ll take you out on one of the great trails around here.

I didn’t read the book Into the Wild (although I loved Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air”), but I did see the movie. A pretty incredible story. The bus he lived in is still there, and people from all over still hike out to see it and honor his memory.

Congrats on quitting the day job! I hope to one day soon. I like your site–looks like you have a lot of great information. Especially now, with gas prices going through the roof!

Thanks again for taking the time to ask your question. Best of luck to you!


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